Number 10: Bloodline, with Jeremy Brett (Review)

I don’t usually review individual episodes unless I’m in the process of watching the entire series. I shall make an exception, however, to honour a truly inspired performance by a truly inspiring man. Ladies and gents, Number 10: Bloodline, starring the incomparable Jeremy Brett.

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Brett plays British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, a genius who’s been used to accomplishing any number of intellectual feats from a very young age (i.e. translating six pages of Thucydides a night in front of his father), as well as drinking a bottle of port a day (from an equally young age) to strengthen his sickly constitution. Now middle-aged, William is Prime Minister at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and his port-drinking has increased rather exponentially with adulthood and has become interspersed with overly-enthusiastic doses of claret and Madeira. He also spends most of his (rare) free time attempting to continue his meticulous, lifelong imitation of the cold serenity that characterises his mother’s side of the family and to fight off the madness that has poisoned his paternal bloodline for generations. It is only when he is reunited with Eleanor Eden (Caroline Langrishe), the intelligent and utterly adorable daughter of good friends whom he has not seen since she was fourteen, that he is finally confronted with the true nature of his existence. Apart from everybody else, belonging nowhere, lonely, and terrified of losing his mind, William realises that his youth has been lost in service to his country and that he has never known the joy that comes from the recognition of a sister-solitude. Through Eleanor, who is more than twenty years his junior and shares his feelings with equal candour, he’s ‘set alight’, as Florence would say, and is completely overcome by the elation and power of that recognition…before people begin to talk, and a terrible promise that has haunted him since the death of his father has the most horrifying and inhuman consequences for both William and Eleanor.

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Most people today know Jeremy Brett from his dazzling and macabre performance as Sherlock Holmes, and people like me who have watched Holmes to distraction may, while watching this episode, observe his refined manner of seating himself on the couch at Downing Street and half expect him to draw his knees up and sit on his haunches at any second. Mercifully, as this episode proves, Brett is spectacularly original as an actor and pours more effort into this one-hour guest appearance than most actors today would bother with on an entire series. William inhabits Brett completely and shines out through his eyes. When a fit of madness seizes him, we get a terrifying glimpse into what is prowling beneath his composed and unruffled demeanour, before this transgression is brushed away as one would a fly and we’re left facing a neat and perfectly tranquil man, hands folded, contemplating the mess he has made of the sitting room; that mass of broken glass and smashed china a symbolic portrait both of his despair and of the side of his personality that causes it. His command of facial expression is exquisite: when he fixes his eyes on Eleanor, or reads her letters, you could not imagine a more touching representation of complete contentment, and, most profoundly of all, fulfilment. When it comes to the possibility of being parted from her, his entire face screws up in such a contortion of agony that you want to look away, as if you’re intruding on something private. Caroline Langrishe, best known for her adorable performance as Kitty Scherbatsky in 1977’s Anna Karenina, is a perfect choice as intellectual sparring partner Eleanor, her disarming and spirited demeanour an ideal match for Brett’s towering screen presence; her final conversation with William at the end of the episode a shattering, head-on collision of youthful optimism and experienced cynicism that leaves you feeling like you’ve been whacked on the head with a sledgehammer.

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With such a heart-rending narrative and such fierce, astonishing acting, this is an episode for people who love humanity, who love acting and who love great stories.

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